John Wayne Is Orange County

Expanded for the Web! Newport Beach Film Fest honors the icon. Its about time

Growing up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood carved out of desert east of here, my buddy and I would break out soldier fatigues his father wore during the Korean War. Armed with stick rifles or toy guns, we'd load our pockets with dirt-clod grenades, roll around in the sand dunes poking up in the nearby wash, and, if hit by "enemy fire," lie face up and motionless under the blazing sun . . . until one of our moms called us in for lunch.

It wasn't until several years later that I realized violent images of the Vietnam War from motion pictures and the evening news informed my childhood playtime. One movie repeated often on TV back then was The Green Berets (1968), which was directed by Ray Kellogg, an uncredited Mervyn LeRoy and the picture's star, John Wayne. With adult eyes and a steady diet of post-antiwar protest/Watergate cynicism, it's easy now to look at what was essentially a propaganda film and dismiss its schmaltz, broad strokes, overblown patriotism, demonization of peaceniks and that goddamn catchy theme song. But when you were a kid flopping around in the hot desert sand to dodge flipcats, horny toads and dirt-clod grenades, those were the things that made The Green Berets the coolest, daddy-o!

Back then, as now come to think of it, you sleep better knowing America's fighting soldiers from the sky are saints—all of 'em, from the Mekong Delta to the My Lai Massacre. Likewise, it's easier to deal with everyone from Ho Chi Minh down to the lowliest mortally wounded girl sniper begging, "Shoot . . . me, shoot . . . me" being the Devil incarnate. Okay, that last reference is from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, hich is so vastly different from the Duke's Beretsyou'd think they were set in different Vietnams. Jacket, of course, came many years later (1987), after the cynicism created by hippie radicals and Watergate criminals had totally hardened a tired, tattered nation's soul. But you get the point. No? Well, lissen up, pilgrim:

John Wayne is not about gray areas.

John Wayne is not about faggy fogs of war.

John Wayne IS America, the greatest country ever created by God, forever and ever, amen.

Ever notice that no one had the balls to even coin the term "metrosexual" while John Wayne still walked the earth? It's no wonder the rumors about the Duke being gay didn't surface until decades after his death.

Not that you kids even know who John Wayne is. Funny story: a former editor here was relating to an intern how no one in a class of young college journalists he'd just addressed could identify John Wayne.

"Who's John Wayne?" replied the intern.

Bigger-than-life bronze likeness at the airport? You know, the airport named after John Fucking Wayne? The same John Wayne who occupied the sprawling bayside estate that's the highlight of any guided Newport Harbor cruise? The burly guy who was superimposed into Coors commercials a couple of years ago? The deliberate drawl? Sashays across the screen? Hates commiepinkohippiescum? His taped "It's getting to be re-goddamn-diculous around here" quote played endlessly by Howard Stern?

Christ, almighty, go ask your Gramps who John Wayne was.

Better yet, go catch the Newport Beach Film Festival's screenings of a mere eight of the late, great actor's 42,648 films. Okay, that's a guesstimate because besides the monster motion-picture career Wayne enjoyed after his 1939 breakout role in John Ford's Stagecoach, the Duke had labored for years—even before the talkies—in strings of movie serials, mostly Westerns. Wayne was rail-thin, his voice was higher, he had a mop of hair, the Duke persona was a million miles away and the cowpokes he played suffered the same physical abuse that would be heaped on James Garner (a Wayne favorite) 40-some years later on The Rockford Files. But the 6-foot-4 actor sure cut an imposing figure in the saddle. You couldn't take your eyes off him.

John Wayne would turn 100 this coming May 29 were it not for the fact he's been dead since 1979. But Newport Beach loves any excuse to party, and its eponymous film festival has teamed with the city's visitor's bureau and Wayne Enterprises—the Newport Beach-based company that owns the John Wayne name, likeness, signature, voice and photographs—to present the John Wayne Centennial: Ten Decades of "The Duke." Included are celebrity-filled parties, an educational symposium on Westerns and the genre's greatest star, and the launching of the first-ever official fan club and website (www.JohnWayne.com).

The American icon who was born Marion Morrison in Winterset, Iowa, is being feted because he is an Orange County icon as well. He raised his last batch of seven kids by three wives in Newport Beach. They include the youngest, former soap star Ethan Wayne, who now manages Wayne Enterprises. His mother is Pilar Pallette Wayne, a Peruvian actress-turned-artist who lived here for several years before moving with her current husband to Fort Worth, Texas, in 2005.

Longtime Newport Beach residents will tell you stories about bumping into "average guy" John Wayne at the local hardware store or corner bar. His yacht Wild Goose is still moored in Newport Harbor. (Floating aboard the former minesweeper several years ago, I could not fathom why one man needed a pleasure boat this big. I supposed you'd need to be larger-than-life like John Wayne to understand.)

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